City’s New Helmet Campaign a Bloody Mess

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I was riding my bike down Beacon Street through Kenmore Square this weekend when I caught, in the corner of my eye, a quick glimpse of a new streetside ad featuring a young man with an incredibly bloody face. I was moving at a quick pace enough pace, though, that I didn’t see it fully.

But on my way back home that afternoon, I spotted the full ad. It read “Still think it’s the helmet that’s unattractive? There are no good excuses.” The text at the bottom identifies the ad as being sponsored by the Boston Public Health Commission, whose “No Excuses — Wear a Helmet” campaign this month has also been painting helmet reminders onto some of the city’s most heavily-trafficked bike lanes, like those on Commonwealth Avenue near BU, which link the young neighborhoods of Allston and Brighton with Boston proper.

My first thought was that the bloody ad just didn’t communicate its message the right way. If you crash your bike, a bike helmet isn’t going to protect your face the way a motorcycle or football helmet might. That isn’t the point. It’s there so that, even if you get terribly injured on your bike, your brain is more likely protected from the severest of trauma.

That’s reason enough to wear a helmet, at least for me. I’ve had my own bloody bike experience in Boston — this spring, my bike slipped on Green Line tracks on South Huntington, shattering my humerus and leading surgeons to fill my left arm with more than a dozen pieces of metal hardware — and the first thing I did when I was able to bike again was get the sturdiest helmet I could. I’m still not sure if I hit my head during my crash; if I did, my helmet absorbed the blow.

But Boston Biker points out, rather astutely, that the ad does more harm than good, especially in how the graphic ad will likely turn off future cyclists who will instead drive, take the T or walk. “Helmets are good, and people should wear them,” Boston Biker writes. “But showing a kid who looks like someone took a bat to his face is not going to get more people to ride their bike, and I think we would all be better off if more people rode their bikes, with or without helmets.”

The point being, if drivers are used to seeing bikers, they’ll be more likely to look out for them. (That’s one reason Globe movie critic Ty Burr says he feels safer biking in Boston than he does in the suburbs.)

The real danger to bikers in this city comes not from bikers but from cars. If the city is going to invest in a public education campaign, it should include a driver education component. Ads on billboards and the back of taxis should remind drivers and passengers to look behind them before opening their car door and that cyclists enjoy nearly all the same rights that cars do.

Finally, the “No excuses” component of the new ad campaign seems to overlook Hubway, the popular bike-share program near the end of its second year. Yes, inexpensive helmets are available for purchase near Hubway stations, but it seems that few riders are opting to buy a helmet to complement their brief bike rental. Once the system finds a way to incorporate helmet rental, there may truly be no excuses.

There’s also a case to be made against encouraging helmet use, the New York Times reported last month. Helmet regulations limit the number of bikers on the road, especially those coming from bike share programs, which therefore cuts against the safety-in-numbers thinking that protects urban cyclists.

“But many European health experts have taken a very different view: Yes, there are studies that show that if you fall off a bicycle at a certain speed and hit your head, a helmet can reduce your risk of serious head injury,” Times writer Elizabeth Rosenthal writes. “But such falls off bikes are rare — exceedingly so in mature urban cycling systems.”

I don’t know if I buy that argument. I think anyone on a bike should still be wearing a helmet. But Boston’s new ad campaign is the wrong way to encourage cyclists to protect their heads and does little to create a culture of safe streets for drivers, pedestrians and cyclists alike.